Greenwood, SC – The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), has awarded a two-year, $779,000 Phase 1 Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) grant to Circa Bioscience, LLC based in Greenwood, SC.
The grant will fund research and development activities focused on the translation of the Greenwood Genetic Center’s (GGC) research on autism spectrum disorder (ASD) into a clinically available blood screening test.
In 2013, GGC researchers, led by Luigi Boccuto, MD, Assistant Research Scientist, discovered that cultured cells from individuals with ASD displayed reduced metabolic activity when tryptophan, an amino acid, was the only available energy source.
“Using this assay, we were able to correctly identify 92% of individuals with ASD, with even better performance in the younger individuals we were targeting,” shared Boccuto. “This provided strong evidence that we could potentially screen for ASD risk using a biochemical blood test.”
Currently, an ASD diagnosis can only be achieved through clinical observation and parent questionnaires, and only after features develop. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently released updated statistics indicating that 1 in 59 children in the US is diagnosed with ASD, up from 1 in 68 reported in 2016.
“Cell lines, as used by GGC, require significant time and resources to create and maintain,” said Kevin Champaigne, PhD, founder and CEO of Circa Bioscience which is located in GGC’s McAlhany Family Center for Collaborative Research. “The focus of our work through this NIMH grant will be to translate GGC’s findings from patient cell lines into a test that can be performed on a simple blood sample.”
Boccuto added that an early diagnosis for a child with ASD allows for earlier therapeutic intervention, which can lead to improved behavioral outcomes.
The work has also led the team to consider potential treatments that could change the course of the diagnosis. “We are hopeful that this understanding of the biochemical changes in individuals with ASD will guide us to effective treatment strategies,” said Boccuto.
“We are very excited for the opportunity to collaborate with the GGC to develop a widely-available screening test to help children and families achieve an earlier diagnosis with the potential of improved outcomes,” said Champaigne. “And we are all indebted to the many families who have participated in GGC’s autism research over the years for helping us reach this pivotal point.”
Initial collaborative work between Champaigne and Boccuto’s lab was funded through a three-year Self Regional Healthcare Foundation grant.